History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage, Uncategorized

Searching for Sustainable Sovereignty

Or, The Axes of Ideology Don’t Just Split Hairs


Sean Safford, one of the OrgHeads, has just put up a very astute post about movements in contemporary U.S. political ideology. Essentially, he thinks that the ideological axis in the U.S. has shifted away from an emphasis on “fairness” vs. “conservation” — CEO pay is far too high! 40 million are uninsured! v. the market works great! If it [institutions] ain’t broke don’t fix it!– to an emphasis on “sustainability.”

Here’s his description of the “sustainability” argument:

The argument goes something like this: We live in a highly interconnected society which operates within a series of interconnected systems. Resources (physical, material, social, and political) are not only scarce, they are extinguishable. The system is in place, not so much to keep social order, but to ensure the reproduction of the resources needed to reproduce society over time. Undermining any of the systems on which society depends threatens to have ripple effects on others. But importantly, the biggest threat to the system comes not from external threats, but from individuals acting in their own self interest in ways that could undermine the delicate balance on which interdependencies of the system depends. Government action is needed, not to ensure fairness, but in order to save us from ourselves.

I think he’s right. Not only does this offer a great way to understand why the heck Andrew Sullivan likes Obama so much (as he points out), it also explains a lot of new rhetoric coming from the Administration.

My only minor quibble would be that I don’t the think “conservationist” strain of American conservatism runs all that deep; it’s common for conservative intellectuals to harken back to Burke, but that’s more ivory tower than politically real. Conservation of institutions is not what gets the base pumped, nor what major conservative politicians espouse (cough, Reagan, cough). Remember, we seceded from the country Burke was so excited about.*

Now, being the historian I am, I couldn’t help but try and think of how this has played out over the past. Specifically the Jacksonian past…


A central problem in the early republic was the location of sovereignty. “We the people” is all very nice as a phrase, but what does it actually mean in terms of governance? Where does the will of the people reside? The Founders thought they’d found an answer by dividing the people’s sovereign powers between the national government and the states in a limited representative republic. This vision was ratified, with what was really a minor amount of shenanigans, via a rolling state-by-state national plebiscite at constitutional conventions — but the question lingered.

Beginning with Jackson’s first failed bid for the presidency in 1824, the location of sovereignty became again an issue, albeit in a different way. Whereas during the revolution, the key question was how to divide up sovereignty so that different groups of elites wouldn’t get stepped on, a few decades later it became a question of “which people” and how their will was expressed. Andrew Jackson’s charges of a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay helped lead him to victory, and his two-administration-long battle against other would be monopolists on power (the Bank of the United States, etc) enshrined the idea that the people’s will was best expressed through democracy — previously a dirty word. Elections — the bigger the more legitimate — were the way to discern the will of the people; the majority was where sovereign power could rightfully make its home.

For a while, Jackson’s opponents held onto Federalist ideas about the need for restraint on the “mobocracy” through a governing elite. This changed with the election of 1840, when the Whig coalition decided to play ball on this whole “democracy” idea and run with it, and from then on the key debate was over how best to serve the democracy (whether you think they did so sincerely or not is another question; a rather tired one that occupies tenured professors of a certain age, and thus plagues the existing historiography).

The question of sovereinty’s location did not go away, of course. The upset of 1840 caused a whole new set of ideas to flourish in the shadow of majority rule. Notably – for our purposes at least – new ideas about organic nationalism began to take hold, and as slave-holders began to grow ever more concerned that their property would be legislated away by the Northern majority, the more extreme theories of this sort – like those of John C. Calhoun – came into vogue.

Calhoun’s theory was based on a very peculiar version of history. The states, Calhoun argued, were sovereign first; they had ceded some of their sovereign powers to the Federal government, but only temporarily – they could take them back, and dissolve the national compact, at will. This theory also relied heavily on the idea that nations, qua nations, were organic; and that in the case of the U.S. (or, as the contemporary formulation ran, “these United States,” plural) the Federal government was, in effect, a convenient confederacy of organic nations, nothing more.

So as the country expanded, adding new states, and disputes over slavery heated up, the question of the location of sovereignty became critical — for how else to decide who could join the union, and under what conditions? Did “the people” of the United States get to decide what would be a slave state and what a free one? Or did “the people” of that state get to decide that? etc etc

(One of the things the Civil War settled was this question of the location of ultimate sovereign power. In case you were wondering: the Federal government, not the states, sets the terms; uneducated Texan pronouncements to the contrary, no state has the right to secede, no where, no how).


Through all these cycles what you can see changing, in part, is the axis of ideology. First what separated factions was their take on how the institutions of government should be designed; then the question of “majority” vs. “elite” divided parties; and finally, after that, back again to the question of the location of sovereignty, albeit in a very different context.

I’m grossly oversimplifying here, of course. The location of sovereignty was just one axis among several – as I imagine “sustainability” is – and perhaps not even the most important. But I think the idea of tracking how and when these axes changed , and what the policy implications were (or would be, in Safford’s case) is critically important to understanding the forces at work in any given political moment.

What I wonder about, though, is how much weight to give these changes in axes in accounting for the formation of foreign policy. Arthur Vandenberg’s maxim that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” though more normative than real, does have some validity, at least in history (though considering how little attention early republic and antebellum historians give to foreign affairs, one might better regard it as an absence of interpretation rather than proven truth).

To take a current example: if Safford’s correct, one might reasonably expect a shift toward international agreements that slow the pace of change (as in global warming, ) as well as policies that accomplish the same sort of thing at home – limits on immigration, perhaps. In the period I’ve covered above – revolutionary to antebellum – there doesn’t seem to be much of a shift, at least on the surface. The country was always expanding its territory, though with big variations in the amount of force applied to make it so.**

Today I’ve been thinking about how the beginnings of the shift to the majority/minority axis – just after the 1840 election – impacted the American reaction to the Opium war. Briefly: Calhoun et al were strongly opposed to such imperial adventures on the part of Britain; their ideological opposites, antislavery Northern Whigs, were far more congenial (at least by the end of the conflict), which makes me wonder if some of this might be at work. No conclusions yet, of course…perhaps the pro/anti capitalism axis makes more sense.

But enough about that. What about the rest of you? What are your important ideological axes? Are they important to the stories you’re trying to tell, or are they only fit for foul deodorant body sprays?

*Yes, I know he said some nice things about the revolution; and yes, I know it was a fairly conservative revolution in some aspects; but you know what I mean.

** I imagine Polk, sitting in a giant armchair, cocking his fingers, making a pistol-firing motion and saying that to Taylor. Yeah, that’s a TNG reference. Love it.

Image Cite: Civisi, “On the Chopping Block,” Flickr, CC License

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